Licensed Music in Video Games
Image: Nintendo Life

There is a moment in a young person's life — a brief window, around 13 years of age — when their internal maelstrom of hormones, peer pressure, and insecurity reaches its peak, turning the teen into soft, malleable putty, ready to be coaxed into a fandom by the next influential moment that comes along. These fandoms range from books (Harry Potter) to movies (Pirates of the Caribbean) to real-life people (any attractive actor, really) — but it's music that defines that adolescent era unlike any other medium.

For me, it was emo music, which thankfully/horrifyingly is back in vogue right now, but it can be just about anything. The boy you like is into Irish folk? Alright, now you're into Irish folk, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of shillelaghs that you're hoping will impress him. Somehow. Your boyfriend has two tickets to see Iron Maiden, baby? Fantastic. Time to learn what the past twenty years has in store for you, metal-wise. For modern teens, TikTok is a culture-shaper, as the songs that people choose to accompany their short videos can become chart-toppers through sheer exposure (and catchiness).

But it's been a while since I've played a game that influenced my musical tastes. As it was for many people, that game used to be Tony Hawk — the skater-sim that was pumped full of rock, indie, ska, and punk, offering to its players a sort of curated radio in the times when iPods were still new (and expensive). For other people, it was games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Dance, FIFA, and Need for Speed, all of which had different playlist vibes to suit their demographics.

Music makes the people come together

Tony Hawk, for me, was gateway music. I would recognise one or two songs, usually pilfered from a cool uncle's playlist or downloaded off Limewire, and with that one song, Tony had bought my favour. From there, it was a slippery slope from Queens of the Stone Age to The Distillers, from Johnny Cash to Faith No More.

Fallout's in-game radio was a stroke of genius, adding real-world narrative layers to a setting suspended in post-war America

In later, non-teen years, it was Fallout's soundtrack that I would listen to fondly. In fact, if any of those weirdly upbeat and decidedly un-PC 1940s jams comes on at a restaurant, it's always amusing to see both people in their 80s and 30s light up in recognition. Fallout's in-game radio was a stroke of genius, adding real-world narrative layers to a setting suspended in post-war America, making sure that the songs that survived were largely ones that spoke to a post-war fear of nuclear holocausts and dystopia that reflected the events and story of the Fallout games. Its like has not been seen since.

And then, of course, when I was at university, Rock Band and Guitar Hero dominated parties (admittedly, maybe only the kind of parties I went to, which were usually hosted by the people who ran the Games section of my university newspaper). As embarrassing as this is to admit, I actually once developed a crush on a guy purely based on his choice of Rock Band 3 tracks to play.

I also played Bioshock Infinite at university, and fell madly in love with Albert Fink's reinvented covers of '80s songs that tease one of the game's time-travel, tear-hopping reveals. In particular, this ragtime version of Tears For Fears' 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' is absolute perfection:

Guardian Games Editor Keza MacDonald — whose feature on the subject of discovering music through games was what got me started on this train of thought in the first place — also credits her childhood of gaming with her musical tastes:

My first introduction to dance music came in the form of a futuristic 90s racing game called WipEout. Playing obsessively at a friend’s house, I was introduced to the Chemical Brothers and Orbital, who both graced the soundtrack; not long after, the admirably chaotic sim Crazy Taxi introduced me to the Offspring, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater had me grinding around to Bad Religion. I first heard Garbage on the soundtrack of an obscure PlayStation 2 DJ game, 2003’s Amplitude, made by a Boston developer called Harmonix.

Put another dime in the jukebox

The kind of heavy use of licensed music that moulded our teens is not massively popular in games, with most studios preferring to have a custom soundtrack tailored to their work — can you imagine Link running across Hyrule to the sounds of Baba O'Riley? — but there's always a place for it, usually in games that have a diegetic reason for licensed music, like a car radio. It's strange to think that lyrics don't often exist in games, unless it's licensed songs — it's too distracting, and way more work for the composer, too. Besides, Portal nailed it (twice), and it's hard to live up to anything Portal did.

It's hardly surprising that the only studios that can afford to undertake the work involved are the ones that can afford specific music licensing lawyers

But I also feel like there are just fewer games in general that lean on licensed music in the way that Fallout, Tony Hawk, and GTA used to. Is that because games like that don't exist any more? Sure, there are still plenty of games that use licensed music, from Metal Gear Solid V's in-universe use of The Man Who Sold The World to artists writing songs specifically for video games, like Ed Sheeran's latest release for Pokémon Scarlet and Violet — but not radios.

Perhaps it's a money-making thing, because you can make more cash off music you wholly own. Even Metal Hellsinger, a new release that's entirely about music, has a soundtrack that's entirely new, but with famous metal musicians featuring on individual tracks, rather than just licensing those musicians' songs. I don't know anything about licensing and royalties, but I assume it's not worth the effort or money in a lot of cases, and this quote from a Games Industry article about the subject seems to confirm my suspicions:

When developers want to feature music by bands and artists in their game, a licensing deal needs to be made. These deals can be very complicated due to a variety of reasons, from the length of the licensing agreement to future releases of video games affecting the original contract. Such issues have affected games such as Obsidian Entertainment's Alpha Protocol and Remedy's Alan Wake, both of which were removed from sale, although Alan Wake appeared back online after its music licenses were renegotiated.

That article taught me everything I now know about licensing rights, which can be summed up as "a lot of work that only results in more work down the line." It's hardly surprising that the only studios that can afford to undertake the work involved are the ones that can afford specific music licensing lawyers — so, EA, Rockstar, and Bethesda. That tracks.

I heard there was a secret chord

While I don't blame studios for not wanting to wrestle with licensing rights, I think Fallout's approach in particular was genius, because it took songs that were probably pretty cheap to license (again, I know next to nothing about this) and reinvented them. As an added bonus, every time I hear Cole Porter, I get this Pavlovian urge to jump back into the post-apocalyptic world of New Vegas or Boston. Free marketing!

This isn't to say that game soundtracks aren't popular any more, of course — my partner, for example, listens to the gorgeous ambient music of Hollow Knight, Celeste, and Earthlock while he works; my old housemate used to listen to Final Fantasy music to go to sleep; the Proms just held its first-ever video game concert — but it's not taste-defining stuff like the licensed music of my teens.

Studios like Epic have dabbled in a sort of musical metaverse, in which pop stars premiere songs to a captive audience

Maybe I'm just not playing the right games? I tend to play more indie games, which definitely don't have the budget for music lawyers, so that makes sense.

I know FIFA's still at it, and there are always literal music games like FUSER and Just Dance that are full of current bangers. Studios like Epic have dabbled in a sort of musical metaverse, in which pop stars premiere songs to a captive audience through games like Fortnite; others — like insanely popular rhythm game osu!premiere songs by underground artists, propelling them to fame. We may not get too many more games that rely on radio music and licensed soundtracks, because it honestly sounds like a massive pain in the arse to organise.

Thank you for the music

I suppose I could just listen to real-world radio to discover new music. But I keep coming back to this quote from Keza's piece, which struck a chord (pun intended):

Streaming music can feel disposable – Spotify feeds you so many new tracks all the time that few of them really sink in. When you’re playing a game the music that you’re hearing settles deep in your emotional memory.

When I listen to the real radio, I'm usually sitting down or driving. Even when I listen to Spotify in my most adventurous moments, I'm usually only walking to the supermarket or heading downtown to get my step count up. Those moments don't stick with you like the excitement of a perfect 1080 in Tony Hawk, or the cool wander-discovery of Fallout's blasted landscapes. Games make music come alive in a way nothing else does, and hearing those songs later, divorced from their previous context, just makes the memories come flooding back.

To have a video game with a licensed soundtrack requires a really specific confluence of factors: Money, time, effort, and perhaps most of all, setting. You can't just crowbar a radio into any old game. But, I think, the audience is ready and waiting for another game to come along and reinvent music for them. I just wonder what that game will be.

Have you discovered new music through video games?

What's your favourite use of licensed music in a game? Do you wish radio-based soundtracks would make a comeback? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!